Another wave of wildfire smoke has entered the US, obscuring the clear summer skies and raising alarming questions about the relationship between the rising frequency of flames and climate change.
Smoke from Canadian wildfires is still drifting south, putting more than 100 million people under air quality alerts from Wisconsin to Vermont and down to North Carolina, though things should gradually get better over the holiday weekend.
As a result of the more than 500 active wildfires burning throughout Canada, the air quality has been impacted on both sides of the border. Officials are forced to let some flames burn because they are so out of control.
At least ten other nations have sent their own firemen to help Canada put out the fires that are threatening the villages whose occupants are frantically trying to flee.
We are grateful for the international support we’ve received to help combat the fires in Canada. Here are a few of the faces who’ve come to help at our fire centre from Australia, New Zealand, USA, South Africa, Chile, Costa Rica, France, the EU, and throughout Canada. Thank you! pic.twitter.com/kQEt2TwjwD
— CIFFC (@CIFFC) June 11, 2023
The repercussions of climate change have already begun to manifest, say scientists, who emphasize that wildfires and the hazardous smoke they produce will increase in frequency.
Some people may be asking why many of the fires are being allowed to burn unchecked as plumes of smoke billow out of Canada’s forests.
This is why:
Some of the Flames Are in Quite Isolated Locations
All Canadian provinces have shared policies highlighting the significance of selecting which fires to fight and which to leave alone, even if they all respond to the fires in their regions differently.
Massive wildfires in remote locations, like those of those raging now in northwest Quebec, are frequently too out of control to do anything about.
According to Robert Gray, a Canadian expert in wildland fire ecology, “if you have limited resources and you have a lot of fires, what you do is you protect human life and property first.” You must prioritize to preserve people, infrastructure, and watersheds.
If the fires are burning far away in the back forty and they aren’t immediately posing a threat, he continued, “You’re going to have to let them do their thing.”
Although the idea of enormous fires consuming millions of hectares of forest area may seem inconceivable, it isn’t entirely novel.
“Canadian fire managers haven’t always put out fires. According to Daniel Perrakis, a fire scientist with the Canadian Forest Service, doing so is expensive, environmentally unfavorable, and amounts to “sort of messing with nature.”
Even if we wanted to address the issue of smoke, it wouldn’t be entirely clear how to do so. You’re referring about vast expanses with no roads and, in some cases, no communities.
262 of the 522 active fires in Canada, including those in British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario, and Quebec, are classified as out of control.
Terrain is another consideration, in addition to remoteness and separation from humans. Some of the fires are being left unattended for no other reason than that they would be too dangerous for firemen to even attempt to fight.
These fires are so large that you really shouldn’t put humans anywhere near them, Gray added. They can start ahead of you, travel quickly, and even trap teams.
To Put Out Fires, There Are Not Enough Resources
Since the first week of June, firefighters have been sent to Canada to help put out wildfires. These nations include the US, Mexico, Costa Rica, Chile, Spain, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, South Korea, and France.
“Canada doesn’t have a lot of firefighting resources,” Gray said. “Individual provinces have their own contracting crews, but they have brought in thousands of folks from outside the country to help.”
Gray admitted that money is one aspect that contributes to the shortage of resources, which is seen in the current battle against the out-of-control flames.
He continued, “They don’t usually allocate a lot of money upfront for firefighting. However, once a fire starts, governments will undoubtedly have the resources to put it out.
“International groups keep saying, you need to shift the focus to upfront mitigation and prevention so you’re spending less money on response and recovery,” he added. “It’s ridiculous. We spend billions of dollars once the fire breaks out, but we don’t invest the money upfront to mitigate the fires from happening in the first place.”
Not Enough Fire Prevention Measures Are Being Used
More needs to be done to lessen the likelihood of wildfires in the future, which could one day result in a tragic disaster.
Prescribed burns, which are fires started on purpose as part of a forest management plan to lower the danger of more catastrophic and destructive blazes, are one of the most efficient fire prevention strategies.
In BC, Gray claimed that prescribed burning is not done nearly frequently enough. “At the moment, we burn around 10,000 hectares annually. More fires are put out in New Jersey than at BC.
Indigenous people have used low-intensity fires to clear the land of things like trash, brush, undergrowth, and specific grasses for thousands of years, as part of an important cultural and environmental heritage known as prescribed burning. Such fuel easily ignites, resulting in more powerful flames that are more difficult to put out.
The deliberate burning techniques can make the trees more resilient and make future wildfires less likely.
Gray’s thoughts were mirrored by Perrakis, who said, “It would be very helpful to have maybe 10 or 20 times more prescribed burning than what we’re doing now.”
Prescribed burns will need greater money from the government and appropriate training because they come with liability concerns and run the danger of accidentally igniting uncontrollable flames if not done appropriately and at the right time.
“We would be removing the fuel from the fire before there’s even a fire,” Perrakis said. “It wouldn’t be used all across the Canadian countryside, but very strategically around communities and other values and will be in line with the local ecosystem.”
Gray noted that in addition to managed fires, other strategies, such as extensive thinning, need to be stepped up.
“We need large scale thinning in these forest types that don’t produce a lot of dimension lumber, so there’s a lot of small trees and we need to come to do something with them,” he added. “We can ship them into the bioeconomy, produce bioenergy markets, engineering, wood products; there’s a lot of things we can do with low value wood, and that’s a lot of what’s out there burning up right now.”
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Fires Are Essential to the Ecology, and Climate Change is Making Them Worse
On Earth, fires have always played a crucial ecological role that is necessary for many ecosystems. They replenish soil nutrients, promoting plant germination, and clearing off decaying materials. Without fires, overgrown grasses and shrubs, especially in times of intense drought and heat waves, can prepare the landscape for bigger flare-ups.
The largest and most intact biome in the world, the boreal forest, covers the majority of Canada. About one-third of all forests on the earth are comprised of the ecosystem with spruce, pine, and fir trees.
However, as the ecosystem is fire-dependent and that fire “is an essential process for conserving biodiversity,” the Nature Conservancy states that the species in the forest have developed in the presence of fire.
“We have records as far back as the 1700s and 1800s of yellow sky and black sky and smoky sky days.” he added. “It’s the natural cycle of the boreal forest. There really isn’t much Canadian fire management agencies can do, even if they wanted to.”
Climate change is increasing the frequency, uncontrollability, and difficulty of natural fires, which have always existed in the system and are typically brought on by natural forces like lightning.
The British Columbian community of Lytton was completely destroyed by a wildfire one year ago, after suffering through a record-breaking temperature of 121 degrees. This event brought the implications of climate change into sharp relief.
Wildfires increasingly burn longer and get hotter in locations where they have always happened as a result of heat-trapping pollutants. At the same time, fires are also starting and spreading in unexpected places.
Perrakis stated that climate and weather are linked and that weather is the primary factor influencing fire behavior.
Another problem is that when wildfires are on the rise, climate change is getting worse at the same time.
According to a 2022 study published in the journal Science Advances, boreal forests are carbon-dense and release 10 to 20 times more climate-warming carbon emissions per unit of area destroyed by wildfires than other ecosystems. According to academics, it has developed into a destructive feedback loop for climate change over time. As a result of wildfire emissions, global temperatures rise, which in turn causes more wildfires to burn.
“Things are changing due to climate change, and that’s catching everyone somewhat by surprise, even though we’ve been talking about it for decades,” Perrakis said. “It takes a big season like this one for everyone to really wake up to what climate change looks like. It’s pretty undeniable.”
Other, larger fires burn freely with no way to control them, and people in the US will continue breathing hazardous smoke as firefighters work to preserve the homes and villages of Canadians near the fires.
When will it all come to an end, then?
“People should probably get used to it, because it’s not something that has come out of nowhere,” Perrakis said. “Climate change is undeniable, and now it’s time to think about the future, 10 or 20 years down the line, and what needs to be done.”
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